How Ove Arup Brought Engineers Out Of The Shadows

The legendary engineer’s building philosophy has never been more relevant. This summer, he’s getting his first major museum retrospective.

In 1956, the Danish architect Jørn Utzon’s won the competition to build the Sydney Opera House with a visionary charcoal sketch of the now-iconic design. The idea for the building’s gravity-defying concrete curves came to Utzon relatively effortlessly: He based them off of the segments of an orange. Actually realizing the ambitious plan was different story: Utzon hadn’t consulted with an engineer on the drawn design before submitting it–and many critics in the field at the time considered it impossible to build.


The fact that the soaring opera house made it into the form it is today is thanks largely to a young Danish-British engineer Ove Arup. After sending Utzon a letter suggesting that they collaborate, Arup spent six years helping him to refine the original design into a buildable version. Ultimately, he used a computer to calculate the geometry of the roof (he was one of the first engineers to do so).

Sydney Opera House.© David Messent

Arup would go on to be instrumental in the construction of many other famous buildings: the Pompidou Centre in Paris, built by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers; Norman Foster’s HSBC bank in Hong Kong and the ceiling of Renzo Piano’s Menil art gallery in Houston, Texas; among others. This month, as part of its so-called Engineering Season, the Victoria & Albert museum in London is giving the late engineer his first ever major museum retrospective.

“There tends to be preconceptions about engineers crunching the numbers behind the scenes and being the support act to the architect’s creative genius, but that just isn’t the case,” Maria Nicanor, who curated the exhibition along with Zofia Trafas White, writes in an email. Arup’s name is known in architectural circles–his eponymous engineering firm is now one of the largest in the world–but he isn’t widely associated with the buildings above, at least not in the way their architects are. Yet without him, Nicanor argues, these buildings wouldn’t be the same ones we know today. In the case of the Sydney Opera House, it may have never even been built.

Arup pioneered a concept called Total Design: an interdisciplinary approach to building that involves the architect, engineer, and contractors working in conjunction from the ground up. If that type of collaboration across disciplines doesn’t sound very radical today, it’s largely due to Arup. A philosopher by training who only became an engineer later in life, Arup was heavily influenced by the writings of Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius and became close friends with many of the leading architects of the time. After moving to London in 1923, for example, he met the Georgian-born, émigré architect Berthold Lubetkin, who gave him his first large-scale job designing the famous spiral-ramped Penguin Pool at London’s Zoo.

In the 1970s, after Arup’s Total Design philosophy was cemented in both his practice and firm, an Arup engineer named Ted Happold approached Piano and Rogers about taking part in the architectural competition for Paris’s Pompidou Centre. The engineers worked on the building from the start. They were responsible for the Gerberette Beam–the key element of the building’s dramatic, white external structural frame that allowed for the uninterrupted interiors–as well as the exposed service pipes and ducts that make the building so recognizable.

Today, Arup’s legacy–and his idea of Total Design–can be seen in the way that architects, engineers and designers work together more closely. “Contemporary engineering goes far beyond the design of buildings or infrastructure,” says Nicanor. “Today engineering involves a vast number of specialists in fields of expertise that even Ove would never have imagined–from acoustic engineering, to crowd control analysis, or environmental engineering, among many others. Because of this incredible expansion of areas of expertise, a collaborative working approach such as the one that Ove advocated for is a legacy that is more relevant today than ever.”


Engineering the World: Ove Arup and the Philosophy of Total Design is on view at the V&A museum through November 6.

[All Photos: courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum, London]


About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.